Front Row Seat

"Shortly before the war of 1914, an assassin whose crime was particularly repulsive (he had slaughtered a family of farmers, including the children) was condemned to death in Algiers. He was a farm worker who had killed in a sort of bloodthirsty frenzy but had aggravated his case by robbing his victims. The affair created a great stir. It was generally thought that decapitation was too mild a punishment for such a monster. This was the opinion, I have been told, of my father, who was especially aroused by the murder of the children. One of the few things I know about him, in any case, is that he wanted to witness the execution, for the first time in his life. He got up in the dark to go to the place of execution at the other end of town amid a great crowd of people. What he saw that morning he never told anyone. My mother relates merely that he came rushing home, his face distorted, refused to talk, lay down for a moment on the bed, and suddenly began to vomit. He had just discovered the reality hidden under the noble phrases with which it was masked. Instead of thinking of the slaughtered children, he could think of nothing but that quivering body that had just been dropped on to a board to have its head cut off." – Albert Camus

And so begins Camus’ exemplary critique of capital punishment, Reflections on the Guillotine. I wrote it out so that you might read it. It doesn’t matter if you’ve read it before. And if you haven’t read it before, maybe you can think of it in terms of what happened last week. It speaks to the sickening weight I felt upon hearing the details of Clayton Lockett’s botched execution in Oklahoma. If you want to know my feelings on capital punishment, read the masterpiece that is Reflections and you’ll pretty much have it. I might not agree with every point along the way, but I cannot deny the conclusion Camus reaches.

But I’m not writing about that right now. You can glean my opinion on the larger matter by reading a more brilliant writer than I could ever hope to be unpack an issue more eloquently in a little under sixty pages than I could ever hope to do in volumes and volumes. What I want to do here is ask you to reread Camus’ opening quote. Go.

Now that you’re back, read this. It’s Ziva Branstetter, a local reporter for the Tulsa World, giving a time-stamped, eyewitness account of Lockett’s forty-three-minute-long execution. Heads up, it’s not ok. You won’t feel ok after you read it. I doubt you’ll think anything about justice or goodness or the appeasement of social traditions and long-held mores. Or maybe you will; I don’t know you. But it makes me sick. Like Camus’ father, my thoughts go to the action, to the reality that is planned and executed death. State-sanctioned death happens a lot in this country, so why are we talking about this execution? Why does it matter if it was botched? He died anyway, right? Death penalty given, death penalty carried out. End of story.

But it isn’t, or no one would be talking about it. And that’s the point. We’re actually talking about it. We as the public are being confronted with something that is done on our behalf, something that we take part in as members of society. Supposedly we do it for a number or reasons: justice of the “eye for an eye” variety, social standards (it’s how we’ve always treated the most heinous crimes), or the safety of the social fabric (one less killer in our midst, and hell, maybe we’ve scared a few others out of it in the future). But none of that matters when we don’t have to look, when we don’t have to know what the killing sounds like, what it smells like, how it feels to watch life be there and then not be there because someone made it go away. But when an execution fails to do the job efficiently enough, quietly enough, sanitarily enough, we end up looking like a rubbernecker on the highway. Whoops. Shouldn’ta upset our weak constitutions like that.

Pop culture weighs in, too. In the third season of The Killing, Detective Sarah Linden watches Ray Seward, a man she helped put in jail but who she comes to learn is innocent, hang. She watches an innocent man hang. And the crunch of his broken neck isn’t the end. It doesn’t kill him immediately. He struggles, gurgling and gasping for breath for several agonizing seconds before he dies. Linden knew he was innocent, and she watched. Clayton Lockett wasn’t innocent. He kidnapped, beat, raped, shot, then buried alive nineteen-year-old Stephanie Neiman. We’re not supposed to see Seward and Lockett in the same way. One deserved it and one didn’t, right? The only problem with that is, if you think Lockett deserved to die, if we as a collective society are supposedly saying Lockett deserves to not only die, but to suffer in the process, why aren’t we watching? Why do we ask for, insist on, rather, having closed doors and rooms with blinds take our place? If you believe that the punishment is fitting, the least you can do is demand to show up and face it. Every time. It’s in your social contract, after all.

In America, we’ve managed to pull such a thick wool of cognitive dissonance and moral passivity over our eyes that we can perform execution medically. It’s like an out-patient procedure. Like, really out-patient. It’s clean and the needle isn’t dirty and the condemned is strapped to a surface that’s probably padded. These are layers meant to separate us, the public for whom the killing is done (it only makes sense if done for us, you see?), from the reality. Because the reality is messy, and if we actually had to face and name what was being done on our behalf dozens of times a year, we might get a bit squeamish and start talking nonsense, wondering if it’s actually a good thing we’re doing or not.

Here’s a hint: busting some guy’s vein with an untested chemical cocktail and then having him writhe for half an hour until he dies of a heart attack should make you squeamish, and it should make you think about how you view the death penalty. And really, it should be that grim every time. We’ve gotten really top notch at making it so unremarkable that we have the audacity to call certain kinds of making someone die not cruel and unusual. ‘Cause some kinds of making someone die who doesn’t want to die are cruel, and some kinds aren’t, right? That’s one way to think about it, I suppose. Until you are “shown the machine, made to touch the wood and steel and to hear the sound of a head falling.” Then maybe it’s not so easy. I’m not telling you how to feel about the death penalty or about justice or anything else. But the least you can do is touch the machine and watch it do its thing. Then you can talk about the ethics of keeping it around.